Sir John Hegarty's main idol is creativity, something he’s seen rise and fall in reputation over the many decades he’s been making award-winning work, from Levi’s sexy Laundrette to the same brand’s risky Flat Eric. But, as Danny Edwards finds out, his own creative drive has never waned, and even now he’s still asking, what’s next?

I came into the industry in the mid-60s – a terrifying thought – but our inspiration then wasn’t coming from anyone in the UK. It was coming from America. It was a great time of agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach and people like [founding president of Wells Rich Greene] Mary Wells. But I’m wary of naming heroes because I admire what certain people do, what they actually create, rather than who they are.

"The idea that you could create something that was smart, witty, clever, but inclusive and, fundamentally, told the truth. That was the brilliance of his thinking." 

You put people on pedestals and then they have an ability to fall off, but a great idea doesn’t. A great idea is a great idea. It has an integrity to it. It has a course of action around it. It has a path it follows and, to me, the heroes have been the ideas, not the people. 

I think that’s why looking at work and talking about work is more interesting than idealising individuals, because, in the end, they’re flawed. I’m a great admirer of Picasso, obviously, why wouldn’t you be? But I’m not sure he was a very nice man, so why would I put him on a pedestal?

Photograph by Steve Harries

One of the great tragedies of life is you realise bad people can do great things. 

I suppose Bernbach was the man that most of us talked about, in terms of what he stood for, what he believed in, how he put that into action. In a way he invented modern advertising. The idea that you could create something that was smart, witty, clever, but inclusive and, fundamentally, told the truth. That was the brilliance of his thinking. People’s perception of advertising [was that] it was there to hide the truth, to confuse you, to sort of… lie to you. But Bernbach said quite the opposite. That it should be about telling the truth because that’s how you develop a long-term relationship. That’s what he wanted for his brands.

It’s always been a mystery to me why the revolution didn’t continue, why it didn’t spread out, why America went into a creative funk for around 15-20 years. I was in New York, at TBWA, at the time – this was in the mid- to late-70s – and I remember going to a new business presentation with Quaker. We had put together a reel of stuff that we’d been doing, and it was mostly visual [and] at the end of it, this guy from Quaker, who was the senior marketing director, said, “Well, that’s a really interesting presentation, very creative, but creativity went out in the 70s.” Creativity was viewed as just a fashion, you know, like flared trousers – until people like Wieden+Kennedy came along and reinvented creative thinking.

I’ve always said there are only two great agencies, Doyle Dane Bernbach and, here in the UK, Collett Dickenson Pearce. CDP in the 70s was a highly creative agency, but they took creativity to the masses. They showed that creativity worked for big brands, mass audiences. I think Bernbach created modern advertising and the use of creativity, but CDP took it to the people, and I think that didn’t happen in the States.

The other thing that’s interesting about America is, in the end, the creative revolution never came out of New York. It came out of Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, it came out of Fallon in Minneapolis, it came out of Crispin Porter in Miami, it came out of Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco. New York was, in many ways, a bit of a creative desert, and people often talked about New York as being the business of advertising, whereas the rest of America was the creativity. Of course, in the 60s, it had been there in New York, but it died, and then 15-20 years later, it was picked up again outside of New York. 

"You always know when a piece of work done by another agency is great because, actually, you hate it. You actually fucking hate it."

You’ve also got to remember that in the UK creativity was a slightly dirty word in the 60s. There was soft-sell and hard-sell, and creativity was seen as soft-sell. And you got the McCann Ericksons and Masius Wynne-Williamses, all those sorts of agencies, saying “We are hard-sell,” and clients loved all of that talk. They thought that was the [right] kind of talk. Nobody once said, “Actually, we’re soft-sell.”

What happened is CDP and agencies like BMP, which started in the late 60s, early 70s, had a great belief in the creative product and understood that it was powerful. Gradually, these agencies started creating work that people talked about.

I was never a great fan of David Ogilvy [below], but I do think his line – “You’ve got to remember, the consumer is your wife” – was a great observation about remembering what you’re advertising and who you’re advertising this to. I thought it was very, very insightful.

At the beginning of the 80s there was a very interesting creative renaissance going on in America. The people were wonderful, but the thing that interested me was what they were doing, not so much what they were saying. You looked at the bravery of the work, at what Fallon had created, BMW and things like that, and you thought, “This is really great. America is catching fire again.” You need that kind of competition. 

You always know when a piece of work done by another agency is great because, actually, you hate it. You actually fucking hate it. And the reason you hate it is because you didn’t do it.

Talking about heroes in terms of ideas, looking back there’s Carling Black Label’s Dambusters, British Airways’ Face. They were big and wonderful, and they pushed the industry forward. 

I constantly say principles remain, practices change. Through social media, do something great and it gets picked up and put out there. So you could argue that today it’s easier [to make an impact] because it allows great work to be talked about. The problem is, we’ve lost faith in doing that great piece of work. This idea that stalking the customer is a great way of developing a relationship, being tracked through your digital engagement. Is that a great way of developing a relationship with someone? I think not. 

If you look at television or movies, or if you look at the gaming industry, what they’re doing is employing more and more creativity. Yes, they’re using technology, but actually, it’s better writing, better direction, better casting, better storytelling. It’s all of those things that make it better. Our industry seems to have gone backwards.

I’ve always maintained that, deep down, all marketing directors want advertising to be a science. I think they want to have the predictability of being able to say, “Look, I put X in and I get Y out.” They want to be able to go to their board and say to them, “We’re going to invest this much in advertising. I’ve got the formula, here it is. Put that in, and you’ll get that out.” But it’s not a science. 

We’ve got people now in our industry called creative technologists. I’ve got no fucking idea what a creative technologist is, and I’ve yet to find somebody who can explain it.

We’re creating a world of generalists, not specialists, and I go against the grain in the sense of I want people to specialise, I want you to be a great writer. I want you to be a great art director. I want specialists, the kind that are fucking good at what they do. Now, the only thing you’ve got to make sure of, in your specialisation, is that you’re as close as possible to having the idea, because we do live in a world where, there’s no question, technology’s going to take away more and more things that people do. The one thing it’s not going to take away is having an idea.

I think technology has become a villain because it’s been sold to us as the solution to  all our problems. It’s not. It’s a wonderful tool, but it needs an idea. 

I mean, if you study architecture, the idea that you could come out of architectural school and not know who Frank Lloyd Wright is, is close to farcical.

I would say, today, that money has also become a villain [in the advertising industry]. Money should be a tool, not a philosophy.

I’ve done very well out of the industry, but when we set BBH up, the idea that we would sell it within five or 10 years would have been nonsense. We never talked about the money. We talked about what could we do, how could we make the work better, how could we make ourselves more effective to our clients, what could we do to improve the quality of our creativity. That was what drove us. 

You realise how few people coming into the industry understand the history of advertising. I mean, if you study architecture, the idea that you could come out of architectural school and not know who Frank Lloyd Wright is, is close to farcical. Or if you studied fashion and you didn’t know who Coco Chanel [below] was. I guarantee you the number of people who will not have heard of Bill Bernbach, will not know about Mary Wells, it’s just frightening. How can you get better in an industry if you don’t understand where it’s come from, and what it’s done, and how it got to where it is today?

I suppose setting up BBH [was my bravest creative decision]. We were at TBWA, they’d just been named agency of the year, the business was very good, and we were doing wonderfully. Why would I give all that up?

We [set up BBH] because, deep down, we felt we could do it better. Being in control of your own destiny, I think, was probably the driving force. 

When we set BBH up, the idea that we would sell it within five or 10 years would have been nonsense. We never talked about the money. We talked about what could we do.

People often ask, “Do you learn from your mistakes?” and I say, “Absolutely not.No.” All mistakes I put to one side and keep going forward. What am I going to learn? All I’ll be aware of is being intimidated by the mistakes.

Most people in the agency thought the idea [Flat Eric, for Levi’s] was mad. It was like, “John, are you sure about this? This is Levi’s, you know?” And I wasn’t sure. But I felt that it could be great. And it would be so different that it would get people to notice it. But that could’ve been, “Oh, Hegarty’s fucking lost it. He did all those other ones, but it was obviously a bit of luck. He’s done this fluffy yellow puppet.” But it did work.

My only regret is I really wanted to get the back cover of Vogue and GQ and all those magazines, and put Flat Eric on them instead of some Giorgio Armani model.

Creativity isn’t an occupation, it’s a preoccupation.

Nobody says to David Hockney, “Oh, David, you know, come on, you’ve done all that now. You’re worth millions, you don’t need to [paint anymore]. You could go and sit on a beach at Santa Monica with a big cigar.” But that’s what he does, that’s what he is. And I’m in that place. I love having ideas. I love seeing things grow. 

Reputation is a dangerous thing. It entraps you. It’s very nice, very pleasant to be called very successful and all of that, but I’m more interested in doing something else. What’s the next thing?

About four years ago I had a wonderful lunch with John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar and he made one very simple observation. He said, “You cannot have a creative company unless creative people are at the top of it.” It’s such a simple observation, but true of course, because what you’re selling is creativity. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t be at the forefront of it as well but, in the end, the great advances in our industry have been made by the creative people. I think what we need in the future is for our business to go back to the essence of what it’s about: creativity. 

I think advertising, when it’s great, is culturally significant. Whether you like Coke or not, the fact that it is what it is, is not just because it’s a soft drink. It’s more than that. It’s an expression of freedom, of individuality, of joyfulness, or whatever their latest thing is. But it has been elevated beyond just being a soft drink. It is a part of the cultural fabric of America. I think great brands do that and that’s what we’ve got to get back to. 

Yes, I could [retire]. But I think I’d be dead within a day.